Australia

Abuse of state power

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I was on foot with dozens of police, at least four mounted police, and numerous police cars. As we roamed the campus, there were plenty of opportunities for police to act if they were worried about a safe distance to COVID.

The police did not act, and after a while I thought I was seeing a model resolution of free speech / public health tensions: students walking and chanting, police waiting.

The students then set foot in the bottleneck of the Paramatta Road Gate. They stopped and apparently didn’t know where to go. I passed through them and came out from the other side. The timing was bad.

Without announcements, warnings, or obvious provocations, police began to physically detain students and carried their flags and megaphones. Seeing what was happening in this brawl, I asked the police why they were robbing students of their property. They didn’t answer.

I was grabbed from behind and marched to the corner. My leg was kicked from below and I fell on my hand and knee. I was pushed down as I tried to get up. I was allegedly arrested and fined for violating the COVID Public Health Order.

Here are the underlying issues of the rule of law. The first is law enforcement consistency. Citizens have the right to know what the law is and when it will come into force. People in Sydney go to football games, beaches, or shopping centers every day with many common purposes, without COVID-related police action.

The same people do not seem to be able to continue peaceful protests

March without risking arrest. Police may have a reason for this apparently inconsistent approach to the safety of COVID, but we need to explain it to us. Without explanation, we can only speculate that police have chosen to curb protests in the name of public health.

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The second issue of the rule of law is proportional. Police, with or without COVID security, are obliged to exercise state power in a rational and proportional manner. It’s not what I see happening to others or experience myself. For some time my arrest was embarrassing and very threatening. Being arrested wasn’t on my bucket list, needless to say. But I am a privileged arrester. I have personal and professional resources.

Surrounded by armed and aggressive police in the lives of so many people is a fact of life that they often deal with alone. It’s true that most of my peers aren’t really grateful until they see it happen to one of their peers.

The fact that I was severely arrested faced many people, this is usually just another news article. It warned people about how police could use their power and actually use it.

The country needs to take measures to protect security. However, all uses of state power must be consistent, proportional, and purposeful. What I saw failed this test.

Simon Rice is a law professor at the University of Sydney.

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